I don’t know what it is with white people. Brother Z wrote an entire essay on the subject last month, dissecting why this bluegrass take on Snoop’s ‘Gin and Juice’ was a total farce, suggesting that there is something implicit to the African American culture out of which hip hop was born that is almost inevitably lost in translation when caucasian folk attempt to reproduce it. Obviously lexicon and cultural and historical milieu have something to do with it. But more than that, white people doing hip-hop, particularly foreigners to the genre who think it might be fun to spin it for an alternative crowd, seem destined to end up with something hollow. It makes little sense, the miscommunication of genre, either. African Americans and Black Brits tend to take to the whole indie rock scene (traditional stomping ground of white, middle-class youth) as evidenced by Bloc Party, TV On The Radio and any other number of racially diverse bands. Rappers themselves can seamlessly integrate the stylings of rock or dance into their acts (see Chiddy Bang taking on Sufjan Stevens, Kanye/Jay-Z taking on Chris Martin, Theophilus London taking on the world). It’s only when the process is reversed and white singer-songwriters approach hip-hop classics that things go awry.
It’s not for want of trying. There was definite comical value in Ben Folds’ swelling, piano-driven version of Dr Dre’s ‘Bitches Ain’t Shit‘. Delivered straight-faced, hearing the guy who most famously lamented “y’all don’t know what it’s like, being male, middle-class and white” perfectly articulating the vulgarities of that track held interest in sounding so manifestly at odds with the original. Later, hearing nu-rave stalwarts The Klaxons aping it up with a Blackstreet classic, as the lads whose usual lyrical domain is playing with the space-time continuum held forth on “rollin’ with the phatness”, you couldn’t help but wonder whether there was some material that just naturally lay outside the bounds of white folk approachability (WFA). In these times of cross-cultural fertilisation and intense hybridism, though, the very concept of WFA has lost its authority and instead, there are musical indiscretions being perpetrated on a daily basis, often in the dominant interest of proving that artists are intrinsically ‘hip’ and that their repertoires are wider than we ever imagined. WFA factor has gone out the window as doing a hip-hop standard has become the new challenge for the talented white artist.
Coming across Emily Wells’ ‘Juicy’ today brought all these concerns to a head as, above and beyond ‘Bitches Ain’t Shit’ and ‘No Diggity’, Biggie’s debut solo single from ‘Ready To Die’ strikes me as one track that definitionally falls outside the bounds of acceptable WFA. In the pantheon of rap tracks, alongside songs like Nas’ ‘N.Y. State Of Mind’, N.W.A’s ‘Fuck Tha Police’ and Eric B and Rakim’s ‘Paid In Full’, this was one song that didn’t deserve to be taken to with a hacksaw, reimagined at the hands of a white artist looking to prove their worth. Wells, a violinist by training, introduces all sorts of unknown variables (not least her kooky enunciation belying Texan heritage) to leave us with a vaguely vaudeville, often spooky rendition of the Sean ‘Puffy’ Combs produced 1994 hit. I still can’t shake the sense that the rags-to-riches tale, so central to the ethos and mythology of hip-hop, is transmuted with dire consequences on Wells’ rendition. But there’s no doubting the value-add in other areas. Covers are the subject of interminable debate, WFA-inspired covers even more so. I’m not convinced I’ll ever find a white cover that supersedes a hip-hop original but here, at least, the PR gimmick produces interesting results.
Emily Wells – Juicy